Wizards open up, come together and let loose on Pacers in Game 5

Mike Wise
Columnist May 13

On the day the season could end, the coach doubled-down on his slumping point guard, pulling him aside in the morning shoot-around practice. On the day the season could end, Randy Wittman had to let an unsure, unconfident John Wall know who he still was, who he will always be as an NBA player.

“He came up to me and he told me, ‘Listen, I just want you to be aggressive,’ ” Wall said Tuesday night from the podium at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. “He said, ‘If you have 20 turnovers, I don’t care. I want you to play the way the John Wall I know that helped us throughout this season.’ ”

Mike Wise is a sports columnist for The Washington Post. View Archive

Wall paused for a half second. Looked up at the gathering in front of him, on the night the season did not end.

“I told him something that he probably never wanted me to say. I was like, ‘I’m frustrated. I don’t know how to get out this slump. I don’t know what to do.’ And he was like, ‘I never want to hear you say that ever again, because I know how confident you are in yourself and I know how competitive you are.’

“To hear that from your coach, from somebody who’s been here for four seasons and riding with me through the thick and thin of things and me having his back is pretty exciting. He texted me today and said, ‘Just believe. Just believe in yourself, John Wall.’ And I did.”

Just believe. Just believe in yourself, John Wall.

Did we mention Marcin Gortat, whose greatest contribution Tuesday night in one of the great bounceback wins in franchise playoff history was shockingly not 31 points on 13-of-15 shooting and 16 rebounds? No, it came before tip-off.

“Right after the starting lineup, he came to me,” Wall said of Gortat. “Most guys seen me locked in all day. They really wasn’t trying to say much to me. March pounded me on my chest twice, and I’m like, ‘I really don’t want to say nothing to you right now.’ He was like, ‘I’m with you, no matter what. Through everything we’ve been through this season, and through this last game, I want you to go out fighting like you have for us all season.’ I pounded him on the chest.”

The Wizards, in their finest moment amid all the pregame doom that was supposed to be in store for a club that gave away a Game 4 and possibly the series against the Pacers on Sunday night, did not merely win a playoff game to stay alive here.

They went to another level of trust, team intimacy and loyalty.

They didn’t just outrebound Indiana by a ridiculous margin of 62-23 and leave the court with a 23-point blowout victory that made Al Harrington say at the buzzer, to no one in particular, “We’ll be back Sunday.”

From Wittman to Gortat to every player on the roster, they lined up behind their leader and let Wall know they were going to win this or lose this with him and it didn’t matter as long as he knew that.

We could go into all the little things that happened to make Game 6 at Verizon Center possible Thursday night.

From Wittman cutting short halftime and telling his players to go break a sweat in a two-man layup line instead of just “Talk, talk, talk,” after all the third-quarter collapses the Wizards have had recently.

To Wall looking at his teammates at halftime and telling them explicitly, “This could be our last third quarter together this season. So let’s just go out and play.”

Wall became a step-on-the-gas floor leader again. He raced up court, early turnovers be damned. He took three-pointers without thinking in the flow of the offense, making three of six. He finished with a playoff-high 27 points on 11 of 20 shots less than 48 hours after he took only 11 shots in Game 4 and passed up a three-pointer to tie Sunday’s game with under a minute left.

We could go into Drew Gooden grabbing nine rebounds and infuriating the Pacers fans who were verbally abusing him. Or Gortat’s incredible night from the field, where he broke out that southpaw jump hook, going to his left harder than the Senate.

But that was merely the basketball, which was a product of the people who showed their vulnerability to each other and began to find another level of whatever it genuinely means to be considered a “team.”

Gortat was about to leave the press room after his interview and before Wall took the podium. He was asked about Wall. He became more animated than ever.

“You know what, first of all, John was a little bit different today, from the preparation standpoint for the first time in 102, 103 games that we had this season, I seen this guy that didn’t want to talk to anybody. He was kind of closed inside him. He didn’t want to talk to anybody. He didn’t want to interact with anybody. He didn’t rap before the game. He didn’t laugh before the game. And I guess, it’s just a lot of things around basketball that has influence on him. A lot of people talking crap to him. A lot of people disappointed with the way we played Game 3 and 4.

“But end of the day, I’m with him. End of the day, I’m going to jump in the fire behind this guy. He plays good or bad, I’m going to have his back and that’s what I told him before the game. We can’t put pressure on the guy who play for the first time in his life in the playoffs.

Gortat kept going. He wanted everyone to know what the kid has been going through.

“He’s whatever, 23, 24 years old, whatever how old. We can’t put pressure on him like that. And we can’t just blame the kid every time the team lose, we blame him. I understand he’s the leader, he’s the head of the snake. . . .

“When he scores 30 and 15, the team is winning, everybody is going to be excited, everybody is going to tap his shoulder, but when team loses, he’s going to be blamed for everything. We can’t do this kid like that. He wants to win. He’s a fighter. . . . End of the day, it’s not his fault. Today, he came out, he played his game and he played his game with me, which is pretty cool.”

It’s better than cool. It’s family. That’s what this team is now.

For more by Mike Wise, visit washingtonpost.com/wise.

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